It had started on our second night. I think the local feline population had called an emergency meeting as soon as they sniffed out our arrival - cats having that uncanny ability - and a ginger tom had won the ballot for first shot at the newcomers.
He tried the ‘Homeless Cat’s Plaintive Serenade Under The Bedroom Window In The Middle Of The Night’ ploy - an old favourite and usually a sure-fire winner. Certainly, we'd fallen for it before. But this time we had two cats in residence and felt that our quota had been well and truly filled.
The next night he tried the ‘Homeless Cat’s Plaintive Serenade From Under The Bed’ ploy. A much bolder stratagem and a considerable surprise at two o'clock in the morning. One minute I was asleep, enjoying a cat-free dream, the next I was awoken by a discordant caterwauling emanating from less than one foot below my left ear.
And he was caterwauling in French. I could tell by the accordion accompaniment.
Having a cat flap certainly has its disadvantages. Singing cats unexpectedly gaining access to your bedroom in the middle of the night being one of them. Sharing a bed with a very large puppy has only one advantage. The singing cat didn't stay long enough to appreciate it.
But he did appreciate the cat flap again - at great speed - closely followed by the aforementioned very large puppy.
With the failure of the singing ginger cat, the starving black cat was sent in. Its job was to beg food. Well, perhaps not so much beg as ask very quietly when no one was around then come back at night and strip the property of everything edible - including Gally's favourite fishy-shaped croquettes.
And the best part of a loaf of bread - the middle part - carefully excavated through its paper wrapper.
Its stomach bulging from the night's endeavours, the black cat then climbed to the top of our fridge freezer and was promptly sick from a great height. Lending a textured wavy stripe to our fridge door.
We could forgive a starving cat the croquettes, perhaps the bread as well. But I think the wavy stripe was going a bit too far.
After that we kept a nightly watch. And so did our cats. Especially Gally, who had taken the theft of his croquettes very badly. They were his favourite. And more than that - they were fishy-shaped.
We'd first noticed his penchant for fishy-shaped crunchy bits in Devon. The cat supplement we bought there was composed of variously shaped and flavoured croquettes but we noticed that Gally invariably picked out the fish-flavoured ones. He even developed a rather bizarre ritual of biting their heads off first and spitting them out. Leaving a residue of assorted meat-flavoured stars covered in tiny fish heads.
Guinny's reaction to the invasion of her home was somewhat different. She underwent a transformation … and became … Guinevere, Warrior Kitten.
We first noticed the manifestation of her new identity one night when our evening peace was destroyed by what sounded like a herd of medium-sized elephants rampaging up and down our stairs. Naturally we assumed it was Gypsy and shouted at her to be quiet. A sad black face stared back at us from an armchair on the other side of the room. For the first time in her life the words 'Not Guilty' and 'Gypsy' could be used in the same sentence.
Intrigued, we tracked the noise to its source. And found Guinny - aka Guinevere, Warrior Kitten - and normally such a quiet unassuming cat, performing one of her new training work-outs - charging up and down the stairs, leaping at imaginary foes and raking the wallpaper with her claws.
I think she'd been watching too many Sword and Sorcery films - evil cat burns down young kitten's village, young kitten spends many years learning martial arts, young kitten grows up to avenge attack on village and evil cat gets just desserts.
Unfortunately the Black Cat hadn't seen the film, or if he had he'd slept through the ending. The result being, a fortnight later, a trip to the vet for the Warrior Kitten and a renewed nightly vigilance.
When Gally followed a week later - his back legs having seized up after a particularly nasty bite - our vigilance bordered on obsession.
We slept with the windows open, ears programmed to react to the first meow of battle.
And anything remotely similar.
Sometimes it was a cow, sometimes a bird, sometimes a bandy-legged cicada with a strange stuttering chirrup. The variety of weird nocturnal noises in the French countryside is truly vast - especially when you're wide awake and really concentrating.
But sometimes it was the real thing. And we'd spend an anxious half an hour accounting for all our cats and often as not trying to talk one of them down from a tree.
Anyone who has ever had to rescue a cat from a tree knows that co-operation from the animal in question is non-existent. And anyone who has ever climbed a tree would also confirm that a dressing gown and slippers are not recommended climbing attire.
And a puppy is no help whatsoever.
I wasn't sure how much more I could take. A decent night's sleep became a distant memory, and the words, 'Cat Fight', a nightly scream. I lost count of the number of times I found myself dragged from sleep and deposited somewhere between the bed and the window, not really knowing why or what I was supposed to be doing other than running somewhere and defending something small and furry.
We tried keeping the cats in at night but that didn't work as no one thought of informing Shelagh's subconscious. She'd wake up screaming 'Cat Fight!' I'd hit the ceiling and various articles of furniture and then we'd have a slow descent into reality.
Made even slower by the all-encompassing darkness and the leg-encompassing jaws of our faithful puppy.
Our one consolation were the words of our vet. It would soon be over, he told us. In the spring, cats fight. It's the season for it.
I hoped someone would tell Shelagh's subconscious.
(next instalment: The dog, the tick and the cigarette hound)